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’60 Minutes’ Spotlight Leads to a Crescendo of Donor Interest for a Music Charity

The phones haven’t stopped ringing at Mama Foundation for the Arts since an emotionally gripping two-part “60 Minutes” segment on Sunday. The group’s Gospel for Teens program showed how a charity in New York’s Harlem neighborhood isn’t just preserving American gospel music but saving the young singers as well.

The CBS newsmagazine story showed how the program participants—African-American kids from throughout New York’s boroughs—sometimes find escape from difficult home lives by immersing themselves in gospel performances.

“The reactions were phenomenal from around the world, especially from grown Caucasian males, calling our office weeping,” says Knoelle Higginsen, a music teacher and the daughter of Vy Higginsen, the woman who founded the Gospel for Teens program. “It has been an out-of-body experience. We are still floating.”

The response has been overwhelming for the art charity’s small staff; the group is run by four people, all either part-time or volunteer.

“We’re still sorting out people who are donating money,” says the younger Ms. Higginsen. Companies are also calling to donate certain products; one even promised to donate 100 sashes for the choir members.

The half-hour spotlight on national television couldn’t have come at a better time for the six-year-old charity, which provides teenagers with lessons on gospel music for free.

Vy Higginsen told Lesley Stahl, the “60 Minutes” reporter, that she founded the choral program without any expenses for the kids, who audition to get in. “I insist about it,” she says. “I don’t think they should pay to learn about their history, their culture, their music. … I want it to be a level playing field. It’s all about the music.”

Small donations, grants, and ticket sales have propped up the Gospel for Teens choir, but they need lots more, Knoelle Higginsen says. The program spends $800 for each of its roughly 300 choir participants, or at least $240,000 annually.

“We’ve never had personal donors who would give on a regular basis,” she says. “We are in need of private donors.”

The grant situation has been a little bit tough, she adds: “Everything has now come in the nick of time, after this piece came out.”

For one thing, space at the five-story brownstone in central Harlem has not been ideal. While the mini-theater on the first floor can hold 50 students comfortably, sometimes 75 have packed the space.

“We need space,” Knoelle Higginsen says. “We would love to have space to expand.”

“60 Minutes” cameras followed the gospel choir for a year, and the kids featured in the program gathered for a big viewing party at Mama Foundation’s headquarters Sunday night. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” the younger Ms. Higginsen says.

Watch the “60 Minutes” segment below:

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